Written by Stephen Pritchard Illustration by Oscar Scotellaro
When you can’t be there in person
Video conferencing is no substitute for building a business relationship face-to-face, but the tools and technology are improving to the point where it’s almost as easy to use as picking up the phone.
It is hardly a surprise that one of the first customers for HP’s high-end video conferencing system, Halo, was the Hollywood studio DreamWorks Animation SKG, the company behind Shrek.
DreamWorks worked directly with HP, applying its knowledge of microphones and displays, to create a system that allowed its animators, based in two studios 400 miles apart, to work as if they are in the same room.
Since HP and DreamWorks dreamt up Halo, video conferencing has developed apace. Other manufacturers, notably Cisco, Tandberg, and Polycom, have moved into the market for high-quality – and highly priced – video conferencing systems, also known as ‘telepresence’.
The idea behind telepresence is to use high-definition video technology to create an experience that is as close as possible to being in the meeting in person. But this comes at a cost. The cheapest Cisco telepresence system, for example, sells for about US$34,000, with high-end systems for multi-person rooms selling for well over US$300,000; HP’s Halo is more expensive still. And any business that wants to use such a system will need at least two units, in order to hold a conversation.
Global companies have, though, found telepresence to be worthwhile. Procter & Gamble is a large-scale user of Cisco’s telepresence equipment; HP Halo users include AstraZeneca, Dow Chemical, and Toshiba. However, such systems are mostly used within companies, on their internal networks, and among larger businesses.
For smaller organisations wanting to use high-definition video conferencing, cost is not the only barrier. The best quality systems need both robust and plentiful communications bandwidth. This is expensive, and not yet available everywhere an international company or organisation might need to do business.
One option is for companies to go to a telepresence bureau in a business centre or hotel. Indian IT company Tata Communications is setting up a worldwide network of telepresence suites, including in Taj hotels, and the Marriott chain is currently setting up a similar network.
Another alternative is to consider one of the emerging breed of lower-cost, although not necessarily low-end, video conferencing systems. Companies such as LifeSize Communications, Telanetix, and Vidyo focus more on ‘desktop’ video conferencing than the large, room-based systems offered by their more expensive rivals.
According to Simon Dudley, manager for the Middle East and Africa at LifeSize, infrastructure improvements have made high-definition video conferencing possible in the Middle East, but companies are still wary of the price tags, and connectivity demands, of full-scale telepresence systems.
“The technology itself is vastly more accessible,” he says. “Two or three years ago many observers expected the Middle East to be a key market for high-end, multi-screen ‘telepresence’ systems.
“But infrastructure limitations and the global recession have left many telepresence vendors pricing themselves out of the market. Instead, demand has been for desk- and room-based videoconferencing systems that offer a telepresence quality-of-experience but at a fraction of the bandwidth and cost.” LifeSize now ranks as a ‘top three’ vendor for video conferencing in the region.
Data from Forrester Research backs up Dudley’s observations. There is no specific data for the Middle East but the IT analyst firm calculates that in North America and Europe, 69% of companies have either invested in or are considering desktop conferencing, 42% of companies ‘high definition’ room-based systems, and 33% the full, ‘immersive’ systems.
The firm suggests that of these, desktop systems are the fastest growing, and this is borne out by the decision of HP, a pioneer of ‘immersive conferencing’, to launch a PC system, Skywrite.
It might even be that the fastest-growing video conferencing option of all is also the cheapest. Services such as Microsoft’s Windows Live Messenger and Skype offer free video calls, with the need for little more than an account and a webcam – now built in to many laptops. Skype already has 400 million registered users, and the company says that the percentage using video conferencing is growing daily.